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Superman to the Rescue: The It’s and Its Problem:

It’s and its confusion consistently hits the top of the most common error charts. But wait, Superman can help you remember when to use the contraction it’s.

It’s is a contraction of a pronoun and a verb:    it’s  =  it is

Using contractions in our speaking and writing makes our language flow more naturally. Without contractions, our language sounds more formal, rigid, stilted, and unnatural. If you want to sound conversational in your writing, use contractions but remember to use the apostrophe correctly.

Here’s how Superman sees it:

Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015
Stop and think about Superman when you use the contraction it’s. Superman loves apostrophes.

Special thanks to Mandy Heck for her artwork.

Its and It’s: Church Steeples and Dog Collars

Of all the possessive pronouns, the simple its causes the most problems. It is most commonly confused with the contraction it’s (it is).

its = possessive form of the pronoun it
it’s = contraction of it is

Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015

Use these clues for using the possessive pronoun (its) correctly:

  1. Possessive pronouns work as adjectives to limit nouns.
    my          our     your      his        hers       it       their
  2. Possessive pronouns never use apostrophes to show possession or ownership
    my         our     your       his        hers       its        their
  3. A noun follows a possessive pronoun:
    its sign       its steeple       its collar
  4. An adjective may follow the possessive pronoun:
    its yellow sign    its big sign   its tall sign  its white steeple
  5. The possessive pronoun its is usually not found at the beginning of a sentence.

The poodle lost its pink diamond-studded collar.

The maple tree lost its red and yellow leaves.

The gray kitten lapped up its cold milk.

The cow chewed its cud.
Artwork by Mandy Heck, 2015

See also: Play Monopoly with its and it’s 

Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader? Plurals and Apostrophes

During the course of my weekly Mahjong game with Linda, Suzanne, and Cathy, the conversation shifted to our English languageGraphic by Janice Heck error pet peeves.

Linda said, “I hate it when people misuse apostrophes. Don’t they learn about apostrophes in third grade?”

Well, no, in third grade the kids just want to get outside for recess to play ball. You don’t need apostrophes out on the field, just a good pitching or catching arm and fast running. With those three key ingredients, you can be a star.

Plurals and Apostrophe Confusion

It’s around third grade that apostrophes start their mischievous and devious lives.

Plurals come easily to young children, that is, until about third grade when they half-learn about apostrophes. Apostrophes look so grown up in writing that children begin to use them everywhere, forgetting what they have learned earlier about plurals. Many children get plurals and apostrophes straightened out after some patient teaching, but alas, many get stuck in third grade using apostrophes on plurals or omitting them on possessive nouns.

There’s Hope!

Teachers use an old rhyme to help children decode words with double vowels (rain, brain, pea, speak, teach, boat, coat, glue, and so on).

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

graphic credit: tiedupwstring.com

When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.

Thus in words like speak, teach, coat, and glue you pronounce the sound of the first letter (long vowels say their own name) while the second letter remains silent.

We can make up a similar rhyme to help us remember how to use apostrophes:

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

The Apostrophe’s Function

The apostrophe answers this question:   Who owns this (book, ball, pen, house, car, whatever)?

Who?   A person = Noun                Owns what?  A thing = Noun

Blaze this in Your Memory Banks: 

When two NOUNs go walking, the first one gets the apostrophe.

To use the possessive apostrophe correctly, you must have two nouns.

Here’s Abbey’s Alphabet to help you check out this guideline.

Check. Does every example have two nouns? (a person and an object)

Possessive nouns and apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Possessive Nouns and Apostrophes. Graphic by Janice Heck

Alas. Of  course, there are more apostrophe rules. We will talk about them in future posts. But for now, just remember that you need a possessive noun and an object noun to use an apostrophe to show possession.

Your Turn:

What writing quirks do you find in writing? What’s your pet peeve in writing?

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and the Ghostly And

In previous posts, Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior and Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire, we learned: use a comma before the conjunction and in a series (list) of three or more grammatically similar words, phrases, or clauses (even though journalists, Brits, and Aussies do not follow this convention). And remember to check the style guidelines of the publishers for whom you write to see which way they want you to use the serial comma.

The classic example using the serial comma before the conjunction:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.

American flag

But you know writers. They like to mix it up a bit. Once they master this basic rule of using a comma and conjunction in a series (list), they proceed to make variations on the rule.

One Variation: The Ghostly and.

Instead of using a final conjunction before the last element in the series (list), the writer simply drops the conjunction and.Death Warmed Over

Eliminating the and in a series in a sentence can be an effective style choice. Let’s go back to the Unnatural Quarter and see what Zombie Private Investigator, Dan Shamble is investigating now. (Kevin J. Anderson, Death Warmed Over, 2012)

List of Nouns and Noun Phrases with the Ghostly and

Note: The parentheses indicate the placement of the ghostly and.

I look pretty good for a dead guy, or so I’ve been told:
well-trimmed dark hair,
striking eyes accentuated by bold eyebrows, (    )
just the right amount of “rugged.”

I like the bustle and little distracting noises around the office:
the ringing phone,
the slam of file-cabinet drawers, (    )
the clacking of a keyboard as Sheyenne’s ghost types up reports.

In the back room of the flat, behind a closed door, I could hear
a whimper,
muffled screams, (    )
the sounds of a struggle.

List of Verb Phrases with the Ghostly and

The ghostly and with a series of verb phrases builds tension in the story.

I spotted the silhouette of a large hairy form
loping among the graves,
sniffing the ground, (     )
coming closer.

Without me in the office Robin threw herself back into her cases,
filing more briefs and appeals,
appearing in court, (     )
speaking with fiery vehemence on behalf of her clients.

List of Independent Clauses (complete sentences in a series) with the ghostly and

Businesses sprang up that catered to the specialized clientele:
Commercial blood drives commissioned fresh supplies for vampire customers;
processing plants developed seasonings and treatments to make chicken “taste just like human”; (     )
restaurants and bars served the proper food choices.

In order to live peacefully together, unnaturals had learned to control their base urges and get along with one another…
Werewolves no longer killed human victims each full moon,
vampires gave up drinking all but voluntarily donated blood, (    )
zombies and ghouls foreswore eating human flesh.

The Fragmented Spirit: The Serial and, the Ghostly and, and the First Word of Sentence and.

Why not throw in another way to use the word and in a sentence (or not)?

Our grammar school teachers frowned when we innocently began sentences with a capitalized And. But writers nowadays regularly use that capitalized And to begin sentences, thumbing their noses at their grade-school teachers, I guess.

In this next example, Kevin J. Anderson throws in three different ways to use the word and:

  1. the compound sentence and,
  2. the ghostly and,
  3. and the first word of sentence And.

I’m dead, for starters—it happens.
But I’m still ambulatory, and I can still think, (     ) still be a contributing member of society (such as it is, these days).
And still solve crimes.

Thank goodness for P. I. Shamble. What would this world be like if all those zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and other assorted created had no legal assistance to solve their life’s problems?

Restless unnaturals instead of placated unnaturals? Let’s not go there! Keep up the good word, Shamble. In the meantime, the rest of us may borrow some of your writing stylistics using the conjunction and.

(Note: While zombie books are not especially a favorite of mine, I do believe it is important to read widely across all genres. Sometimes we can learn new things when reading in a genre that is not familiar to us. And, these books are funny!)

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire

In Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior, serial comma (aka Harvard Comma and Oxford Comma) combatants duked it out over correct usage.

On my scoreboard, the serial comma won, hands down. But journalists, Brits, and Aussies don’t all agree with me.

A Bigger Problem: Parallel Structure

But a major underlying issue compounds the serial comma problem: parallel structure.

To be grammatically correct, both serial commas and parallel structure must be right in your writing.

Constance Hale, author of Sin and Syntax: How to Craft wickedly Effective Prose (1999), reminds us of the danger of not books on writing - Hale 001understanding parallel structure and appropriate punctuation:

Some of the most hilarious errors in English result from phrases that aren’t properly tracked. If you don’t know what you’re doing, phrases will deliver you straight to The Danger Zone.

Want to avoid errors with serial commas and parallel structure and keep June Casagrande’s nasty old grammar snobs from picking on your writing (Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, 2006)?   Read on.

Look for the Lists

My husband (My Heck of a Guy, affectionately known as MyHog for short) is set in his ways about just how to loads the eating utensils in the dishwasher.

Grammar graphic by Janice Heck

(Just don’t nest the utensils. They will get cleaner if they go every-which-way.)

Whatever. Makes no difference to me; he loads the dishwasher, so he can do it any way he wants.

I must admit (but don’t tell him I said this) his method of loading the dishwasher makes it easier to empty the dishwasher. Grab a handful of knives and plop them into their home base in the utensil drawer. Repeat. In six basic swoops, the utensils are happily nested in the silverware drawer.

Serial Lists: Like Parts of Speech Go Together

Serial lists are like loading silverware in the dishwasher: like parts of speech go together.

Grammar Graphic "Parallel Lists" by Janice Heck

These patterns, known as parallel structure, keep your writing organized and bring poetic flow to your sentences. If you mix grammatical words, phrases, or clauses in lists (non-parallel structure), you not only lose the flow of your sentence, but you become snickering fodder for the grammar snobs who lie in wait ready to pounce on any and all unsuspecting and naïve writers.

Writing lists in non-parallel structure to good writers is like throwing a teaspoon down the garbage disposal while it is running: it makes a terrible clunking noise, and you just want to make it stop.

Serial Lists in Zombie TerritoryDeath Warmed Over

Zombies? I follow my own advice and read widely in all genres. So when a zombie book came my way, I read it…and laughed the entire way through.

New York Times bestselling author, Kevin J. Anderson, is a master at using serial lists in his book, Death Warmed Over (2012). (All quotes in this post are from this book unless otherwise noted.)

Zombie private investigator Dan Shamble, pronounced Chambeaux, despite being dead himself, hires out to other baffled “unnaturals” (zombies, vampires, ghouls, and other utterly dead or dying creatures), each with his or her own devastating problem, all the while keeping an eye out for his own double-dealing killer.

Statistics, according to P. I. Shamble, show that these unnaturals are a serious problem:

According to the latest statistics by the DUS, the Department of Unnatural Services, about one out of every seventy-five corpses wakes up as a zombie…

With so many zombies and unnaturals around, sooner or later they will surely invade our sentences. Here’s how to root them out and get them the commas they deserve.

Lists of Words inside Sentences.

Key to success: Keep the parts of speech under control.

Private Investigator Shamble keeps these parts of speech under control with ease. Have a look:

1.  List of 3 or more single nouns.  Pattern:  …noun, noun, and noun…

The world’s a crazy place since the Big Uneasy, the event that changed all the rules and allowed a flood of baffled unnaturals to return—zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, and the usual associated creatures.

I reworded Anderson’s  sentence to show that the list of nouns can be in the front of your sentence (the subject) or it can be in the back of your sentence (the predicate–as  above).

Zombies, vampires, werewolves, ghouls, succubi, other baffled unnaturals, and other associated creatures have flooded the world since the Big Uneasy, making the world a crazy place.

2. List of 3 or more single adjectives. Pattern: …adjective, adjective, and adjective…

 [The werewolf hit man] was a smelly, hairy, muscular guy, half-wolf and half-human.

Lists of adjectives can go in the predicate as above or in the subject as in the reworded sentence below:

That smelly, hairy, muscular guy, half-wolf and half-human, is the werewolf hit man.

3. List of 3 or more single verbs. Pattern: …verb, verb, and verb…

The worst characters [the unnaturals] were arrested, tried, and sentenced…

Keep in mind that verb tense in series must be kept parallel too!

Lists of Phrases inside Sentences:

1. List of noun phrases: (noun plus descriptive details written here in list form so you can see the parallel structure easier)

A dead detective,
a wimpy vampire, and
other interesting characters from the supernatural side of the street
make Death Warmed Over an unpredictable walk on the weird side.
Charlaine Harris, Book Reviewer, Death Warmed Over

 Just before noon, the artist’s ghost manifested himself in our second-floor offices, wearing his preferred form:
 long ponytail,
 tie-dyed shirt, and
 paint-stained jeans.

The main door burst open, and a terrified-looking man [a vampire] ran in. He wore
a dark overcoat,
gloves,
a black floppy-brimmed hat, and
oversized wraparound sunglasses like the ones old ladies wear after cataract surgery.

Robin spread out the legal forms on the signing table. “I have
the property deed to the real estate in Greenlawn Cemetery,
the plat marking the location of the crypt, and
the ownership transfer documents for Mr. Ricketts to sign.” 

**Effective Writing Style Tip:  for added interest, vary the length of each item in the series. Most often, put your longest item last, but you can vary this arrangement to make it more interesting. Try different arrangements to see how they work.

**Bonus: Here’s a double series of adjective/noun phrases.

Many haunters, underground dwellers, sewer jockeys, and walking dead
don’t mind
ramshackle appearances, piled garbage, or thick shadows . . .

2. List of verb phrases. Pattern: …verb phrase, verb phrase, and verb phrase…

After returning to life, I had
shambled back into the office,
picked up my caseload, and
got to work again.

***

In law school, she [Robin, Shamble’s secretary, and a ghost, of course] had been able to
pull all-nighters;
study,
write a term paper,
go to class in the morning,
take an exam,
hang out with friends in the afternoon, and
party at night.

***

Days of investigation had led me to the graveyard. I
dug through the files,
interviewed witnesses and suspects,
met with the ghost artist Alvin Ricketts and separately with his indignant still-living family.

3. List of adverb phrases. Pattern: …adverb phrase, adverb phrase, and adverb phrase…

Popular writer of his own zombie novels, Jonathan Maberry, reviewed Anderson’s Death Warmed Over using a series of adverb phrases. (Note his choice of omitting the serial comma!)

Master storyteller Kevin J. Anderson’s Death Warmed Over is
wickedly funny,
deviously twisted and
enormously satisfying.
Two decaying thumbs up!
Jonathan Maberry, Review of Death Warmed Over

While the rest of us have been warned not to overuse adverbs in our writing, book reviewers seem to get thrills and energizing chills from using them willy-nilly! Oh well, when you are famous, you follow a different set of rules. (Read: Don’t Use Adverbs? Book Reviewers Use Them!)

Finally, Remember Four Key Principles when Using Parallel Structure

  1. Look for series/lists in sentences. Good writers use them.
  2. Keep like parts of speech together in series/lists (parallel structure).
  3. Keep verb tense the same in a series of verb phrases.
  4. Use the serial comma (the comma before the conjunction).

Follow these simple guidelines, and you will keep the grammar meanies away forever!

Of course, there are more ways to use parallel structure, and future posts will give examples of these: Parallel structure with clauses coming soon.

**Effective Writing Style tip: Good writers use parallel structure to bring rhythm and flow to their writing.

And now, if you want to read more about the zombie invasion, here is another Kevin Anderson book., Hair Raising.book for blog - Anderson, Hair Raising 001

Your Turn:

What’s your favorite quote using parallel structure?

Can you use one of Anderson’s sentence patterns in your writing using your own topic-related words?

 

Apostrophe Atrocity: On The Marquee at the Shore

Heavens forfend! An error on the marquee down at the shore.

Contractions photo - Janice Heck

The contraction stands for two words: Let us. Using the contraction form, it should read “Let’s…”

Oh well, the heat must have gone to someone’s head!

 

 

Serial Commas and Compulsive Behavior

Academics and journalists duke it out when it comes to using serial commas in sentences.

Serial commas (aka the Oxford comma and the Harvard Comma)

…come before conjunctions (most often before and, or)

…when used in a series (or list) of three or more words, phrases, or clauses in sentences.

Commas in series, graphic

What are the colors in the American flag? The academics write it this way:

The American flag is red, white, and blue.       (with serial comma)

American flag

The journalists (along with the Brits and Aussies) favor this writing:

The British flag is red, white and blue.       (without serial comma)

British flag

The Battleground

Turns out there is a long history of wordy disputes between these two deeply-rooted warring camps.  Lynn Truss, a Brit and author of TrussEats, Shoots & Leaves, traces the conflict back hundreds of years and advises,

Never make the mistake of getting between these two groups, especially when the beer is flowing.

Trouble raises its ugly head when an editor from each group reads the same manuscript. The comma advocate will tsk-tsk through the writer’s masterpiece compulsively jabbing commas before the conjunction where they see a series of words, phrases, or clauses in sentences. The opposing editor, equally vociferous in his tsk-tsking, goes through the manuscript slashing out the serial commas that the comma advocate so rambunctiously inserted into the manuscript.

What’s a writer to do? Which warring faction should you join? Where will you throw your lance?

The AcademicsChicago Manual of Style

The academics have some pretty hefty backers sitting in their bleachers:  The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2009), Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2004), Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (2000), and Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) all favor the serial comma

Garner puts it this way:

…virtually all writing authorities outside that field [journalism] recommend keeping it [the serial comma].

Though widely criticized for their simplistic approach to writing style and usage, Strunk and White post this as their number 2 ruleStrunk and White in The Elements of Style, 4th edition (2000).

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write:  red, white, and blue…

Others join the fray: Roy Peter Clark in his The Glamour of Grammar (2010) says this:Clark, Glamour of Grammar

…when it comes to the serial commas, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before and in a series. I need it.

casagrande4, sentencesTo seal the deal, June Casagrande, author of It was the best of sentences, it was the worst of sentences, (2010) says:

fight to the death (or at least to the pain) for the serial comma.

The Journalists, Brits, and Aussies

Two American heavies weigh in on this serial comma issue on the side of the journalists: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2002) and The Associated Press Stylebook (2010).

The Associated Press Stylebook is the authority on this subject for journalists. Here’s what it has to say:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.

The flag is red, white and blue.

Newspapers fight to keep that extra comma out of their text lines because they, well, take up space. They do allow for adding the comma when their might be some ambiguity. Ambiguous advice, don’t you think?

Comma Middle Ground

Lynn Truss heads for the quieter and saner middle ground in this fierce rivalry:

One shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.

Truss does admit that the

comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves…is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest.

June Casagrande says in Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (2006),Casagrande, Grammar Snobs

Most people don’t know [how to use commas], so they wing it.

In fact, most people dutifully (and ignorantly) follow the old misguided adage,

Put a comma in wherever you pause to take a breath.

Pity those poor non-fluent, word-by-word, mouth-breathing readers who pause after each word as they read!

So there you have it: two opposing camps (some dodging the arrows in the comma middle ground) with strong arguments (they think) for their own staunch positions.

What’s a writer to do?

Of course, you will find all three approaches to using the serial comma as you read books, newspaper articles, and blog posts. But what should a writer do?

Simple: If you write to earn money, follow the style sheet put out by the organization that you write for.

But truth be told, I hang out with the comma advocates. I love the serial comma, and I add them physically or mentally to everything I read. I advise you to do the same. That will save me a lot of tsk-tsking when I edit your manuscript.

Finally, just remember this: If you write to your mother, just wing it. She won’t care if you have that comma in her letter or not, just write the letter. But please, please stop that mouth-breathing. It’s annoying.

 

Coming Soon…

Serial Commas, Parallel Structure, and Zombies for Hire

Seial Commas and the Ghostly And

 

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